day 39: campy

Today is 39 days, which is four days and five weeks of the omer: netzach she’b’yesod.

Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella accomplished a ton during his nine years in the major leagues: eight-time All Star, three-time NL MVP, one-time NL RBI leader, and one-time WS champion, all as one of the star players on the famed “Boys of Summer” team that won five NL pennants between 1949 and 1956. Sadly, he was paralyzed in a tragic car accident a few months before the 1958 season was set to start. He ended up with a .276 batting average, 1,161 hits, 242 home runs, and 856 RBI and would have undoubtedly left an even more impressive record if his playing career had not been doubly shortened, first by baseball’s color barrier, which kept him out of the majors until he was 26 years old, and then later by the accident just two months after his 36th birthday.

GettyImages-514867358Before he entered the minor league system, he spent several years in the Negro and Mexican leagues. He led the Baltimore Elite Giants to their first Negro National League title in 1939. He was considered by Branch Rickey for the job of breaking the color barrier, and even though, as we all know, the honor went to Jackie Robinson, Campanella would explain that Rickey had a profound influence on the former’s life and career: “He made me a better catcher, a better person on and off the field. He made me a completely changed individual.”

Campanella did a pretty good job himself of rolling with his new fortunes in his wheelchair. He continued his career with the Dodgers as a scout, a spring training coach, and later a member of the club’s community-service division in Los Angeles — becoming an even more beloved figure as an executive than he was as a player. On May 8, 1959, 93,103 paying fans, the largest crowd in baseball history, filled the Los Angeles Coliseum for an exhibition game between the Dodgers and the Yankees dedicated to Campanella.

Almost 100,000 fans simultaneously lit matches to honor Campanella at a May 1959 exhibition game in L.A.

Campanella shows up in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” mentioned in the verse about 1953 — along with Stalin, Malenkov, Nasser, Prokofiev, and Rockefeller — in recognition of his second NL MVP award that year. Joel wrote the song in 1989 to demonstrate to a young friend that times were as hard for Joel as in his 20s as they were for that friend then. It’s a pretty terrible song as a song (although it was nominated for a Grammy, what?)  but to me it’s an interesting one to consider right now. The past four years have been inanity on top of outrage on top of atrocity: How will we possibly sum up 2020, say, in just six words? And what does it mean to claim “we didn’t start the fire”? Isn’t everything named in all those verses a product of human activity?

But, enough with the historical philosophizing. The legendary outfielder and original HoFer Ty Cobb once said, “Campanella will be remembered longer than any catcher in baseball history.” So, let’s count Day 39 in honor of the enduring memory of this tzaddik.



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